This is my first memory. It is my third birthday party. One or two other half-memories from before this may have sneaked in; pastel-colored cups at my grandparents’ house with mysterious and un-dumpable water trapped between two layer-walls, a green sweater that one of my relatives has sewn, an old trailer outside of a house made mostly of wood; but I only remember snapshots of those things. This is my third birthday party. It is the first time I will remember feeling anything, and so it is my first memory.
What I feel is …jealousy.
It isn’t the first thing I’ve felt today. In fact, I must have felt something akin to ecstatic joy only moments ago. We are in the bowels of the rodeo arena where the National Finals Rodeo is being held; my parents—ordained home missionaries to the rodeo cowboys of America (NOTE: yeah, look, I know. My dad was a rodeo cowboy, which I’m aware, to some of you, is something akin to me nonchalantly claiming that my Dad was an astronaut/dragon slayer. But this is just the truth)—have invited a few friends. It could be as few as 5, or as many as 35; I’m only three, so forgive me for not yet mastering the art of crowd estimation. I only know that they are here for my birthday, and that means that today is exciting and important.
My mom, no doubt trying to give her first-born child some sense of normalcy amidst the nomadic lifestyle of a cowboy missionary, has arranged a cake decorated with Smurfs, my current favorite piece of pop culture (though the Dukes of Hazzard will soon follow). It won’t be until a year or two later that I am forbidden to watch the Smurfs because of Gargamel’s “witchcraft”, though I will keep these cake-topping plastic figurines until adulthood. But today is an innocent celebration of Smurfs, and of Me. The icing on the cake spells out “Happy Smurfday”, though I will only remember that from photographs because I won’t be able to read for another few months.
Yes, I must have been over the moon just a few minutes ago. But a few minutes ago is not when my young brain decided to start writing in ink. That happens now. Some music is coming from some discovered boombox, or maybe from a roomful of people singing “Happy Birthday” (this detail will be lost to the years). I hear laughter and applause. I look up, and discover that my friend Paul Robert Sholtz has climbed up on the table and is dancing a dance that consists mostly of taking as many fast steps as possible. His little boots are clomp-clomp-clomping, and people are clap-clap-clapping. Somehow, between Smurfs, presents, and cake, I have lost the attention of the room. The only solution I can muster is to follow suit. I climb, first atop a chair, and then to the tabletop and proceeded to initiate what I can only imagine to be the cutest dance-off ever.
Alas, the copycat (rightly) never gets the same reception as the innovator.
The second feeling I will remember is embarrassment.
It won’t be a lingering jealousy. My brothers and I will be friends with P.R. (as we called him) for years after that, spending many a day on the fairgrounds of various rodeos in which our dads are competing.
In fact, P.R. will be present a couple of years later for another first: my first brush with real danger; one of my younger brothers (I can’t remember which one) will lean too closely over a lit stove burner in the Scholtz’ trailer, allowing the handkerchief around his neck to catch on fire. Only the quick reactions of Linda Scholtz will prevent a trip to the emergency room that day.
Linda is a trick-rider; she does flips and jumps on the back of a horse while it runs around the arena at full speed. Paul Sr. is a bronc-rider. He just mostly tries to hang on. Both of them make a living by cheating death-by-horse. So she probably won’t remember the handkerchief incident years later.
But I will.